You know somethin’, man? Some day I’m gonna be walkin’ up the street one way and you’re gonna be comin’ down the other way, and we’re gonna pass each other and I’m gonna say ‘Hello, best white band in the world’ and you’re gonna say ‘Hello, best colored band in the world.’ – Chick Webb
No one studying the history of drums could dispute the remarkable influence and legacy left behind by the amazing Chick Webb. Despite having physical limitations from contracting spinal tuberculosis shortly after his birth Chick stood out as one of the greatest drummers of his era. His keen ability to swing in a way that truly complimented the other musicians or singers around him was second to none. Chick knew when to play time and when to stand out. Many drummers today could take a lesson from listening to the remarkable “Stomping at the Savoy” or “Blue Lou.”
The Savoy (where Chick led the house band) regularly featured battles between the name big bands of the day, with Chick Webb’s band taking on the likes of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. Chick usually came out on top and is said to have put Gene Krupa in his place. Over the course of his career Chick spread the popularity of contemporary big band music among the black community by becoming their champion. His inspirational story of a man who rose above his physical limitations to become one of the best big band drummers of all time is an amazing story in itself, but the music he left behind is just as remarkable.
A Star is Born
It never seemed more unlikely that a child would grow up to become a star than it did with the birth of Chick Webb. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, to William H. and Marie Webb, Chick was born with a deformed spine due to tuberculosis which caused him to appear hunchbacked. It also stunted his growth which made him appear much shorter than those without his affliction. It is said that his doctor first suggested that he take up a musical instrument to help “loosen up” his spine. Chick took his advice to heart and delivered newspapers in order to save up enough money to buy his first set of drums. Showing an aptitude for them he was playing gigs on pleasure boats by the age of 11. Realizing that in order to support himself he had to go where the music was Chick moved to New York, Harlem to be exact, when he was 17. Jazz drummer Tommy Benford began giving Chick drum lessons upon his arrival and Chick started leading his own band. Chick was unable to read music, and instead memorized the arrangements played by the band and conducted from a platform in the center. The year was 1926.
Chick quickly established a name for himself and often sat in on sessions with players like Duke Ellington. Shortly after he formed his own quintet, and played for five months at the Black Bottom Club. He then formed an eight piece band called the Harlem Stompers who played the Paddock Club, moving next to the Savoy, and setting up there in 1927. This band grew to eleven members, and by the end of the 20’s they were gigging at all the major jazz clubs in the city as the Cotton Club, the Roseland, and the Strand Roof. In 1930 they toured with the “Hot Chocolate Revue”. By 1931 the band was made the house band at the Savoy, which would last for the next five years. They also did road tours and other dates at clubs such as the Casino de Paris, but it was the Savoy where they would be called the Chick Webb Orchestra. According to Cootie Williams, Chick was “perhaps the greatest natural bandleader jazz has ever known…Any musician that worked with Chick…became a great musician.”
By then Chick had become a well-known drummer enough to endorse the custom made instrument that was constructed to counter his affliction. According to a blog post at Gretch.com titled “Chick Webb the Savoy King” Chick was probably the first real drumming star to be promoted as a Gretsch artist. The Gretsch catalog features a great photo of Chick—touted as “the king of the drums”—enthusiastically swinging behind a Gretsch-Gladstone drum kit. “If Gretsch-Gladstone drums were unusual, Chick’s kit was downright unique. It was a combination of drums and “traps”—percussive sound effects including temple blocks—all mounted on a rolling console frame. The bass drum was 28” in diameter; the “rack” tom was 9×13, and the floor tom was 14×16. Zildjian cymbals–one large on Chick’s right and one small on his left–were hung on loop hangers from gooseneck stands attached to the bass drum. The drums were covered in a striking oriental pearl finish inlayed with contrasting green sparkle “chicks” around the center of each drum.”
Going to War
“Battle of the Bands” was a huge crowd-draw during this time. Two bands would take turns on the bandstand playing their hottest arrangements with the dancefloor crowd acting as judges and picking the winner. Chick’s band was considered to be among the best. One such battle inspired a Down Beat critic to write, as quoted in the book Ella Fitzgerald, “Chick had such amazing musicians in his band and they played with so much feeling and fervor that they swung the crowd right over to them, astounding everybody.” They competed against the Benny Goodman Orchestra and the Count Basie Orchestra beating them both but they lost to the Duke Ellington in 1937. In 1938 Chick’s band was declared the winner over Count Basie who said he was relieved to come away from the contest without embarrassing himself. Gene Krupa was also bested by Chick’s band and was left drained and defeated. Krupa, years later recalling the event, wrote, “I’ll never forget that night. Webb cut me to ribbons!”
The band was to enjoy a long run at the Savoy then when things couldn’t seem to get better, he replaced his longtime vocalist with a young Ella Fitzgerald. She had won a talent contest at the Apollo Theater. This move took the band to a whole new level. Ella would captivate the Swing Era of jazz with hits such as “A-Tisket a Tasket.” In 1937, they got a regular radio spot on NBC. They played at the prestigious Lowe’s State Theater and at the Paramount, and, in December, became the first Black band to be hired at the Park Central Hotel.
Life and Legacy
In November of 1938, Chick’s health began to decline. Despite this he continued to play, refusing to give up touring so that his band could remain employed during the Great Depression. Chick disregarded his own discomfort and fatigue, which often found him passing out from physical exhaustion. Finally, he had a major operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1939. Webb died from Pott disease on June 16, 1939, in Baltimore. Reportedly his last words were, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.” He was roughly 34 years-old. Chick was buried in Baltimore County, in Arbutus Memorial Park, in Arbutus, Maryland. On February 12, 1940 a crowd of about 7,500 people attended a Chick Webb Benefit in Baltimore, Maryland.
Following Chick’s death, Fitzgerald led the band until she left to focus on her solo career in 1942. The band was renamed Ella and Her Famous Orchestra with Fitzgerald taking on the role of bandleader. She recorded nearly 150 songs with Webb’s orchestra between 1935 and 1942.
Chick Webb was a major inspiration for all the drummers in that era, including rivals Art Blakey and Gene Krupa, and would go on to influence drummers as Buddy Rich, who studied Webb intensely, and Louie Bellson. He was the consummate showman and with his rhythmic style, was perfectly suited for the swing era. He raised the standard for drummer awareness, and paved the way for drummer led bands. Perhaps Krupa best summed up his mentor when he exclaimed in Modern Drummer, “He had style!”